1792 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Richard Polwhele

Anna Seward to Richard Polwhele, 25 May 1792; Polwhele, Traditions and Recollections (1826) 1:293-96.



Lichfield, May 25, 1792.

SIR,

I think myself much honoured and obliged, by a present from the Bards of Devonshire and Cornwall, of their collected poetic orbs; and that the brightest star in the galaxy bends its auspicious rays on my muse. in an elegant manuscript sonnet, their harbinger. I am not insensible of the many emanations of genius and fancy in these volumes; though it has been my lot, alas! to bend upon them an eye languid from indisposition, an attention wandering, and robbed of all its energy by the dangerous illness of a friend, long, very long beloved, in whose sight and dear society I have lived from my earliest youth; in whose clear spirit I never saw one cold shade of selfishness, one spot of depravity.

It concerns me to find you have been so unfortunate in the loss of your infants; yet to how sweet a sonnet has that loss given birth! The general fault, to my taste, of most of the sonnets in these volumes, is the want of Miltonic breaks in their measure, which breaks appear to me a necessary characteristic in that species of poetry; but the sonnet to the infant Maria has them, and with them every thing that can endear it to the heart and the imagination. Beneath the perhaps too self-flattering idea that there is some resemblance in the style of a couple of my former-day sonnets to this, which I so much admire of yours, and to the 11th bearing your signature, I am tempted to insert them at the termination of this letter. The 8th and 10th, which are also yours, are scarce less my favourites; and I am pleased with the sonnets marked S. The ode signed G. is a pleasing imitation of Collins; yet I cannot think, with the Editor, that it is of equal excellence to the rhymeless Ode to Evening by that fine poet, though its manner is strikingly copied. The Four Odes on Public Occasions, signed V. have great merit. I am but too highly honoured in one of them. Your lyrics, which open the second volume, are very fine. The Ode to Sleep, and the Mona, are sublime; that to the River Coly, picturesque, interesting, and lively. The Picture Gallery I like the least of any thing which bears your signature, because I understand it least.

My grateful devotion to the charming, though now neglected Muse of Shenstone, will not permit me to restrain my expression of the regret and disgust I feel, to see those pleasing volumes disgraced by a feeble attempt to ridicule her natural and beautiful effusions. Shenstone appears to me the only professed pastoral writer, who has struck the true pastoral chords; who possesses the graceful simplicity which those of Virgil and Pope want, without any of that coarseness, into which, attempting to be more natural by painting vulgar nature, Spenser, Gay, and Philips fell. Shenstone, actually living amidst rural cares, and in the cultivation of scenic beauty, "wrote as he felt." He places before us the landscapes by which he was surrounded; and all the coy graces of a refined imagination and a feeling heart, flow naturally in his verse. Ample is their power to elevate and render interesting the benevolent employments of the country gentleman, blended with the pursuits of the scholar and the man of taste; the easy dignity of fervent friendship, and the animated yet delicate solicitude of growing passion. Something, surely, of excellence must be wanting in the head or heart of those who perceive not the magic influence of these unobtrusive, these genuine beauties of description, and of sentiment; who forget that we owe the happiest imitation of Spenser's best manner to this poet. "The School-mistress" is alone sufficient to entitle its author to a high seat in the poetic fane of Britain.

When you see Dr. Downman, have the goodness to make my best compliments to him, and present my thanks for the letter with which he lately favoured me. My pen had made its acknowledgments to himself, if the state of my health and spirits permitted the cultivation of any new correspondence in addition to the too extended one in which I have been long involved.

I remain, with the highest esteem, Sir, your obliged, and faithful humble servant,

ANNA SEWARD.